Summary: God in His providence is working in our lives today, whether we realize it or not. When life hurts, we can choose to be bitter, like Naomi, or we can be like Ruth--trusting the Hand of Providence, in spite of unanswered questions and an uncertain future.
Ruth. A love story. A book of history. A lesson about faith and loyalty. But most of all, a book about God, the One behind-the-scenes. As we encounter Ruth we learn how God takes an active role in our lives. We learn through this short story that the human events we regard as circumstance are divinely appointed and providentially directed by the One whose will is never frustrated. His purposes are always accomplished, even when our hopes are dashed. Ruth shows us that God is there; God cares; God rules; and God provides. The theme of Ruth is the steadfast love of God.
The action takes place during the dark period of the Judges, when there was no king in the land. It was a time of political instability, apostasy and lawlessness, where people did “what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). How does the “good news” intrude into this setting? This chapter by itself tells a bleak tale--with 3 deaths, 3 widows, famine and anarchy. Yet there was another side to this troublesome time--for God was at work, and there were people left in Israel who lived with integrity.
As this brief book opens, we learn that there has been a famine in the land of Israel. Due to these dire conditions, Elimelech journeys with his wife and their two adult sons from Bethlehem to the neighboring country of Moab. Bethlehem means “House of Bread”, but there’s no bread in this town.
Moab and Israel were geographically close but spiritually far apart. The people of Moab were descendants of Lot. Moab’s gods (Chemosh, Moloch, and Baal-peor) represented lust and cruelty; they demanded human sacrifice and ritual sensuality, in stark contrast to the monotheism and morality of Israel.
Was the famine a test of faith? Abraham had left Israel for Egypt due to a famine, with disastrous results. Elimelech appears to lose confidence in God’s provision; he leaves the Land of Promise. Warren Wiersbe comments: “I would rather be hungry in the will of God than full and satisfied out of the will of God.” The journey certainly did not achieve its goal. By moving to Moab, Elimelech lost his life while seeking a livelihood, and found a grave where he sought a home. His sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, but the sons also die. With her husband’s death and the death of her two sons, there is nothing left for Naomi but a tragic life of abject poverty.
Ten years have passed and the famine in Israel is over. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, all three now widows, are at a critical crossroad, faced with a major decision. Naomi chooses to return home to Bethlehem. She assumes her two daughters-in-law will remain in Moab. She gives them her blessing, wishing them “rest” and God’s “kindness”, verses 8-9. These are not insignificant words. The word “rest” refers to security and salvation; “kindness” is God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Why would Naomi tell Ruth and Orpah to remain in Moab? Was she using reverse psychology? Or was she resisting using pressure to get them to join her, so that it would be entirely their decision? She knows from experience what it’s like to be a foreigner and perhaps wants to spare them this. Hope for a better future is not to be found with her. Nonetheless, their desire to go with Naomi (vs. 10) is very emphatic in the Hebrew; yet Naomi counters with an objection that she is unprepared to provide for them. All they could do is share her poverty.
At this point Orpah sadly chooses to remain. She weeps and kisses her mother-in-law good-bye and the narrator does not criticize her decision to return to her home. But Ruth “clings” to Naomi and this word implies loyalty and deep affection. She is prepared to leave the only home she’s known for another.
Naomi claims that “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (vs. 13). She rightly recognizes that events do not occur by chance--God brings to pass what He chooses--however, she wrongly assumes that God is against her. Naomi’s complaint may sound shocking and irreverent to our ears, yet in many passages of the Bible we see people vent their frustration with God--one writer has suggested that God not only tolerates our anger, but that anger is “the proper stance of a person who takes God seriously!” It is understandable to feel like Naomi when life hurts. Our problem is that we get so focused on our pain we’re unable to look beyond it to see God’s purpose... and His love.
Ruth chooses to trust God. To leave Naomi would mean to lose her only contact with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She responds with words we often hear quoted and sung at weddings, verses 16-17, although they’re not usually said to the mothers-in-law! Here are words of commitment and faith: